Teri O'Neill doesn't take photographs of flowers; she takes pictures from the flowers' point of view. Using a standard 35mm camera and photographic equipment intended for medical and industrial use, O'Neill is able to get her ethereal shots from inside the flowers.
"I'm trying to show that there's more to a flower than a flower," says O'Neill of her one-woman show Into the Mystic Garden. "When I show people my portfolio, they expect to see flowers, and they can't find them. It's not like taking a picture of a rose, and everyone looks at it and sees it as just that. I'll have five people look at the same photo at the same time and see five different things. That's my goal. Most artists are trying to make a statement about what they see. I want you to discover it for yourself."
Some of her photos have caused blushing among viewers, but O'Neill says she doesn't feel there's any Georgia O'Keeffe-like eroticism in the flowers, which are mostly orchids. Rather than erotica, O'Neill says, more people interpret the subjects of her photos as creatures from a science-fiction movie. Nevertheless, she tends to use male pronouns such as "him" when referring to individual flowers.
O'Neill uses a borescope to make the artistic detail possible. The laser-gun-like attachment to her camera is basically a thin tube with a reflecting mirror inside. It's used primarily by doctors and engineers to inspect arteries and pipes, but it allows O'Neill to squeeze her lens into the flower's core without destroying it. When enlarged, the photographs reveal intricacies far more artistic than scientific.
"When I first saw her portfolio, I was dumbfounded," says Tom Torgove, owner of The Fine Art Photographer gallery, where O'Neill's work will be shown October 16 through 24. "I couldn't dream of how she got these images."
Not only does O'Neill's photographic style require special equipment, it also requires cooperation from her husband, Barry.
"I'm getting such tight shots of the inside of these flowers that even the vibrations from my husband walking into the room can screw them up," says O'Neill.
Shooting live flora and fauna is nothing new to O'Neill. Barry is a filmmaker, and the two have put together wildlife books and movies for National Geographic and other outlets; their most recent film focuses on wolves in Yellowstone Park. But Barry could tell long ago that Teri's talents were better suited to a smaller scale. "While I'm looking at the grand scene," he says, "Teri is looking at a pinhead inside something that no one else sees."
"I feel almost like a sniper," she says, "because I can't really breathe when I'm taking a shot or it'll ruin it. It takes infinite patience. Sometimes I'll set up the camera and get a shot right away. Other times it'll take six or seven days to get it right."
That's why O'Neill works with live flowers, which she grows inside her studio. "The borescope also helps, because I don't have to cut the flower in half to get the shot I want," she says. "If you cut a flower, the image changes within a couple of hours--the edges start to decay. That's why they don't serve well. Besides, if I manipulate it, it's not real."